Weather Thesaurus Entry: Avalanche
Posted by Angela Ackerman
However, caution must accompany this entry: the weather should not be used as a window into a character's soul. The weather can add invisible pressure for the character, it can layer the SCENE with symbolism, it can carefully hint at the internal landscape, but it must never OVERTLY TELL emotion. Such a heavy-handed approach results in weather cliches and melodrama (a storm raging above a bloody battle, a broken-hearted girl crying in the rain).
Avalanches occur in mountainous terrain where a natural pockets of snowpack build up, made from either fresh snow or layers of older, compacted snow. Often a shift in temperature (thaw), rainfall or windstorm can trigger an avalanche. If too much snow accumulates too quickly, or rain compacts fresh snow creating an unstable heavy slab, an avalanche is an event waiting to happen. Wind is a dangerous factor, as it erodes snow from the upwind side and deposits it on the downwind, creating an uneven build up. When a sluff (loose snow) or a slab (compacted snow) fractures, nothing can stand in its way. Traveling at 60-80 miles per hour, a dry avalanche takes down anything in its path. Trees are uprooted and splintered, rock, ice, man-made structures and debris is swept up and carried away. A wet avalanche is slower, traveling at only twenty miles per hour.
A person caught in the avalanche is carried with it, tumbling without control like a giant ball of snow down a hill. Most often they are pulled under by heavy gear (skis, ski boots, etc) and they must 'swim' furiously against the pull. This happens quickly and trying to retain any sort of control against such a force is almost impossible. From a distance, clouds of snow billow and form at the site of the avalanche. If you are writing an avalanche scene and need to see a first person account of a skier caught in an avalanche, buried alive and then rescued, here's a video. It's not for the faint of heart however, so watch at your own risk.
The tang of ozone would be the most noticeable, along with pine or spruce needles, cedar wood (if trees are uprooted/splintered)
Cold, metallic snow, ice crystals, one's own sour breath from fear
Chunks of snow pummeling the body, branches whipping against the face, clawing for handholds, the drag of snow pulling you under, arms and fist slamming into the snow in an attempt to stay at the surface, the squeeze of snow debris against the body and chest as it sets into place in the aftermath, unbearable cold and tingling against exposed skin, snow clogging mouth and nose or pressing against the face
The precursor sound to an avalanche is a whomp noise. This is the sound of instability in the ice pack and if close enough a person would hear the crack as a layer of snowpack breaks. If an avalanche is in motion, trees crack and snap on the way down, there is a hiss as fresh slow slips and tumbles, and from afar it is a slow rumble that builds. It can almost sound like thunder during a summer storm. In the aftermath, the area seems almost unnaturally quiet. Want to hear one for yourself? Follow this link!
Mood: Avalanches can infuse a sense of terror into a scene. Wild, uncontrolled and deadly, those who witness one, live through one or by chance alone, narrowly miss being caught in one are brought face to face with their own mortality. A somberness follows in its wake as horror sets in: being caught in such a force would most likely be the end. A brush with such an event may cause people to rethink their paths and bring about the need to be with people they care about. Avalanches can make good foreshadowing tools of a similar, life-altering event about to occur in a POV character's personal life that make them feel a loss of control and leave a hard, emotional impact.
Symbolism: A lack of control, volatility, an unstable lifestyle, the fury of Mother Nature, an impossible foe, risk
Possible Cliches: Outpacing an avalanche in an action scene
OTHER: Most avalanches are triggered by people placing their weight on unstable surfaces (skiers, snowboarders, hikers & snowmobiles). It is a myth that noise can trigger avalanches--the sound would have to be intensely loud (such as explosions going off nearby). Outrunning an avalanche is nearly impossible without a vehicle that can travel at high speeds and has strong maneuverability. Stats show that 93% of avalanche victims survive if dug out within the first fifteen minutes. Odds drop to 30% or lower after forty five minutes and after two hours, there are no survivors. The cause of death in most cases is carbon monoxide poisoning.
Don't be afraid to use the weather to add contrast. Unusual pairings, especially when drawing attention to the Character's emotions, is a powerful trigger for tension. Consider how the bleak mood of a character is even more noticeable as morning sunlight dances across the crystals of fresh snow on the walk to work. Or how the feeling of betrayal is so much more poignant on a hot summer day. Likewise, success or joy can be hampered by a cutting wind or drizzling sleet, foreshadowing conflict to come.